A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784)

James Cook: A Not So Brief Biography

Growing up a Vancouverite means at some point you hear the great story of how the cities discovery. The tale goes that a great explorer by the name Captain James Cook braved the harsh winds of the Pacific for the sake of glory and country to discover what had never been discovered (that is if we forget about the local aboriginals thing; then, this is mostly correct). But that’s pretty much all that’s taught in the local schooling system, so today we offer you a brief biography of the explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain: James Cook.

Born November 7, 1728, James Cook, along with his seven siblings, was raised in Marton, North Yorkshire, England. By the age of thirteen, he was bound as an apprentice to a local haberdasher by the name of Mr. William Sanderson (Kippis 2). But, frankly, Cook had no passion to become a shopkeeper; he had only eyes for the big blue sea. So, after much arguing with Mr. Sanderson, Cook gained a discharge from his apprenticeship and searched for a position on a boat in a nearby seatown. For the rest of his teens and early twenties Cook bounced from ship to ship gaining experience that would prove valuable given his future endeavors. In the spring of 1755, tensions turned to war between England and France. The call for seaman was at a fevered pitch and Cook, admittedly after much hesitation and consideration, turned his sights to gaining fortune in the Royal Navy (Kippis 3).


(The routes of Captain James Cook’s three voyages. The first voyage is shown in red, second voyage in green, and third voyage in blue. The route of Cook’s crew following his death is shown as a dashed blue line. (Platek)

Aboard the Mercury, Cook travelled across the Atlantic Ocean under the command of Sir Charles Saunders which, in tandem with the land forces of General James Wolfe, engaged in the siege of Quebec. Cook was imperative in cartographing the entrance of the Saint Lawrence River, which allowed for General Wolfe’s famous attack on the Plains of Abraham: a stealth attack on the French that involved the British scaling down a hillside to blind side the French with musket fire, ending the battle in a mere thirty minutes (Kippis 6). While on the east coast of what would become Newfoundland, Cook put his cartography skills to pace as he charted much of the coast to such a great accuracy that maps he made would stay in use for the next two hundred years (Richard 34). This taste of exploring was insatiable to Cook, he was determined for more. He concluded that he intended to go not only “farther that any man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go” (Williams, “Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer”).


Upon wartime success, Cook returned to England in 1767. Having impressed the British Admiralty, Cook was tasked with a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus and to not only explore any land he may meet, but more importantly look for “the great southern continent Terra Australis Incognita whose location had intrigued and baffled European navigators and projectors since the 16th century” (Williams, “Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer”).  Cook set sail August 26, 1768, commanding his own ship: the Endeavor. He was accompanied by an astronomer, two botanists, a landscape artist, and a painter of natural history (Encyclopedia.com). Cook sailed first to Tahiti to best carry out his astronomical observations. Upon completion, he sailed south in hopes of making landfall. After months of sailing with no land in sight, Cook sailed westward to New Zealand. He charted the coasts in a little over six months, thus revealing it not be the “great southern continent” he hoped it to be (Williams, “Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer”). From there, Cook continued westward to New Holland (the name the Dutch had given Australia) and charted its eastern coast, which he named New South Wales and claimed possession of in the name of the King. Cook charted the coast until his ship nearly wrecked on the great barrier reef; Cook’s journey was delayed seven weeks as the crew made repairs on a nearby beach (Williams, “Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer”). The voyage continuing, he sailed through the Torres Strait, settling a dispute at the time as to whether New Holland and New Guinea were joined together. In all, Cook returned to England having charted more than five-thousand miles of previously unknown coastline.

Upon the success of his first voyage, Cook was promoted from lieutenant to the rank of commander and was quickly tasked with another journey. This time, his primary goal was to verify the reports of a great southern continent. Essentially, scholars believed that there was a continent to the south of Australia; the giant vastness of the ocean between Australia and South America had to have some giant landmass in it.

Cook set sail aboard HMS Resolution on July 13, 1772, and sailed much of the Antarctic circle, getting closer to Antarctica than any previous known navigator (Encyclopedia.com). Finding no great continent, Cook once again sailed towards New Zealand where he touched on previously known lands like Tahiti, but also for the first time the Easter Islands, the Marquesas Islands, Tonga, and New Hebrides (Williams, “Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer”). Cook sailed for three years, and upon his return had successfully brought more clarity to the mystery of the “great southern continent”. Not only that, but Cook had also had a breakthrough in nautical medicine, for he had proven that a crew, if properly fed, could make a long voyage without ill effects. He had lost only a single man to disease out of his one-hundred-eighteen crew members. This feat won him a Copley Gold Medal of the Royal Society, and he was thus elected into their ranks (Encyclopedia.com).

Cook’s third and final voyage saw him set sail to find the infamous Northwest Passage: the acclaimed and mythical waterway that connects the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic through North America. In 1776, Cook commanded the HMS Resolution, while his counterpart Captain Charles Clerke, commanded the HMS Discovery. In 1778, Cook made the major discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, where he promptly named the Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich – the acting First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook then sailed northwest, and rapidly charted the northwest coast of America including Vancouver Island and the Bering Strait. Despite mapping the entire coast of what would become California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, no ice-free passage to the Arctic Ocean revealed itself (Williams, “Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer”). Cook thus decided to return to the Sandwich Islands, which would prove to be the first action in a series of events that would lead to his death. Scholars originally believed that when Cook arrived in Hawaii he was regarded by the Hawaiians as the god Lono, bringer of light, peace and plenty, for he had arrived at the time of makahiki, Lono’s festival; the consensus actually seems to be that this was not the case (Williams, “Captain Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer”). Initially, Cook was received well, but relations deteriorated so Cook departed the islands only to have his ship damaged at sea, forcing his return. Tensions grew between Cook and the Hawaiians as a cutter (a small boat) of the Resolution appeared to be stolen. To get his property back, Cook devised a brilliant plan that he would kidnap the King of Hawaii and ransom him for the return of the boat. Initially, things went well and the King complied, not thinking he was actually being kidnapped. As you may have guessed, when the King finally discovered he was being kidnapped, a fight broke out between the Hawaiians and Cook’s crew. Cook himself was clubbed over the head and died in said fight.

Even with such a terrible demise, Captain James Cook set new standards in the extent and accuracy of charting and surveying. His voyages garnered maps and knowledge that lasted centuries. His journeys also brought a great deal of information into the realms of natural history, biology, geography, astronomy, philology, and more. What’s more, Cook set new standards of naval living conditions that benefited thousands of sailors of the future.

A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, written by James Cook and James King (who finished the writing upon Cook’s death) is one of many artifacts surviving today that exemplify the vast discoveries Cook made throughout his time navigating the globe. Furthermore, the volumes provide insight not only into the important discoveries Cook and his crew made while exploring the Pacific, but also into the trends of publishing and binding in England at the time.

Detailing the Publication of A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean

Written on the title pages of the volumes, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean was a project, “undertaken, by the command of his majesty, for making discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere,” to, “determine the position and extent of the West side of North America; its distance from Asia; and the practicability of a Northern Passage to Europe” (Cook and King). It also states that the volumes include, “illustrated with maps and charts, from the original drawings made by Lieut. Henry Roberts, under the direction of Captain Cook,” including, “a great variety of portraits of persons, views of places, and historical representations of remarkable incidents” (Cook and King). The majority of these illustrations were drawn by John Webber, an artist who accompanied James Cook on the third voyage of the Pacific Ocean.

The volumes were published by, “order of the Lord’s Commissioner’s of the Admiralty”, which was the government department responsible for the command of the Royal Navy in England. The book was printed in London, England, and was printed for William Strahan and Thomas Cadell, two well-regarded publishers at the time.

Thomas Cadell was a successful 18th-century English bookseller. He published works by some of the most famous writers of the century (Dille). Thus, it is no surprise as to why Cadell would have wanted to also publish Cook’s voyage journal during this time, as it was ground-breaking and significant for the course of history. Cadell was sent by his father to apprentice London bookseller and publisher, Andrew Miller (Dille); he would continue on into Miller’s profession, becoming a bookseller and publisher. In his later years, Cadell partnered up with William Strahan to run a business that would publish Cook’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

William Strahan, Cadell’s counterpart, was a Scottish printer and publisher. He was originally apprenticed to an Edinburgh printer, but became a master printer in London (Seccombe). Strahan built up a, “highly important and successful business, employing 50 men” (Seccombe), which he was able to do by diversifying from printing to publishing. According to Seccombe, “by 1770 he owned the biggest printing operation in the kingdom, comprising three separate printing businesses in six buildings”.

The publication of James Cook’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean was very valuable for Cadell img_2117and Strahan because, “the 18th century was a wealth of knowledge, exploration and rapidly growing technology and expanding record-keeping made possible the advances in the printing press” (John Rylands University Library of Manchester). What’s more,the publication of the volumes was very significant as it depicted the voyages and encounters of James Cook in his journey around the world – which was remarkable in the 18th century. Its publication was, “carefully overseen by the Admiralty and the Royal Society so as to eliminate any contradictions or careless entries” (Wendt). Wendt explains, “in addition to the news aspect of the Cook’s journals, the illustrative plates engraved after paintings by John Webber captured the imagination of the public and successfully portrayed, before the age of photography, images of the South Seas and North Pacific that last to this day” (Wendt). These images do still last to this day through the survival of volumes such as these, as well as the illustrations which depict their respective portrayals of 18th century travel history; these have made their way onto the internet today.

 img_2121       The volumes themselves are quite thick, due to the cold-pressed woven paper bound within them. Throughout the volumes, there is an indication of ‘ghosting,’ which is when ink bleeds from one page onto the next, leaving a brown colour onto an accompanying page within it. This is said to be due to the fact that the book has not been open for quite some time, and the acidity of the ink bleeding onto the next page has left a significant mark. On the pages where illustrations are present, there is also evidence of  indentation from the press; viewers of the volumes can clearly see where the plate was pressed into the page. (See image of the indentation of the page from the plate and press for reference).

When considering the content of those illustrations, the volumes include depictions from Cook’s voyages through the Pacific Ocean from 1772-1775. There are illustrations of different plants, maps and charts of different regions, people they encountered in their journey, different tools and weapons the people they encountered use in their everyday lives, depictions of the natural scenery, and illustrations of important historical moments. In the volumes, there are even tables exhibiting different languages the crew encountered, which include the English word and the indigenous translation particular to a specific territory. (See image below for reference to a translation table found in the book).


There are two major artists who contributed to the volumes’ illustrations: William Hodges and John Webber.  William Hodges was an English painter who was a member of James Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific Ocean. He is best known for sketches and paintings of locations he visited on that voyage. According to Gordon Crompton, “many of his sketches and wash paintings were adapted as engravings in original published edition of Cook’s journals from the voyage” (Crompton). Crompton states that, “most of the large-scale landscape oil paintings from Pacific travels for which Hodges is best known for were finished in London”. The Admiralty employed Hodges, after his return in 1775, in order to finish his drawings and engravings for the published account of the voyage (Crompton). It is these drawings and engravings that are the illustrations now found within A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

John Webber, comparatively, was an artist on James Cook’s third voyage through the Pacific Voyage. It is said Webber met Cook through the agency of Joseph Banks, a img_2116naturalist Webber assisted. With this encounter, Webber, “was ‘pitched upon’ for the explorer’s third Pacific voyage, to supply drawings of ‘the most memorable scenes of our transactions’” (Cole). The majority of Webber’s depictions were illustrated during the exploration of the Pacific Northern Hemisphere, specifically, the Pacific-Northwest.“His depictions of Nootka Sound, of which there seem to be 29 extant, present about 17 different subjects ranging from coastal profiles” (Cole). According to Douglas Cole, “the most important drawings those of Nootkas, the inside and outside of their houses, and their masks and rattles are of inestimable ethnological value” (Cole).

 img_2115       There were many images that were examined in the study of James Cook’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. One of these images was labelled as “Three Views of Arched Point on Kerguelen’s Land”. This image presents the shore line view of what is now the Kerguelen Islands located in the Indian Ocean. It depicts different views of the island’s shorelines, one view being a “View when Arched Point bears South ½ miles distant”, another being a “View of Kerguelen’s Land 4½ miles distant”, and the last illustration being a “View of Kerguelen’s land when Prince of Whale’s Foreland”. (See image of Three Views of Arched Point on Kerguelen’s Land for reference).


Another image studied was “Views on the Coast of Kamtschatka”. This image is located on page 312 of the third volume of A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The illustration is very detailed, obviously done by a skilled etcher. Within the image, fine thin lines are used to depict the mountains and coastline. Lines and the thickness of the lines are used to indicate shading and composition.

The use of lines is very significant in depicting maps as well. The illustrations of maps in the book label points on island harbours and at sea. There are also trails showing where the ship travelled and points where the ship rested – either at sea or near the shore of an island. The indication of elevation through hills and mountains are apparent by the use of sketching lines within an island’s border, thus making it very detailed. (See image below of the use of details in maps through the use of lines below. The image below also shows evidence of “ghosting”, which is evident throughout the book itself).


Turning to the binding of the volumes, trends at the time indicate that though the famed Strahan brothers were heavily involved in the printing of the pages in these editions, they would not have done the binding of the volumes. During the period of hand-pressed books (1500-1800), the craft of binding was a separate entity from the publishing process, and was done by a separate firm (Gaskell 146). The publisher, in this case the Strahans, would have distributed the printed copies to the bookseller, who would have then sent the editions to one of the many bookbinders concentrated within the capital city of England: London (Gaskell 146).

Had these volumes been those published for the King’s own collection, there was a private Crown bindery at Buckingham House from 1780 until the 1820s which would have bound the copies for the Royal family (Nixon 96). In the late 1780s, it is suggested that George III employed men from local bookbinder James Campbell, such as John Polwarth,  who was the head finisher at the Palace for six years before he proceeded to open his own bindery (Nixon 97).

Looking more closely at the binding techniques applied to these particular volumes, the trio of texts encapsulating Cook and King’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean housed at the University of British Columbia exemplify many of the bookbinding trends of the 18th century. In particular, they showcase half-binding, paper marbling, and the gold-stamping technique prominent at that time.

When considering the entire cover of the volumes, there is a ratio of leather to paper common of books in the 18th century; this style of binding, with leather on the corners afront-covernd on the spine and the sides decorated with marbled paper, is exemplary of the half-binding style. At the turn of the century, binders had begun to “make shortcuts in the binding process to both save money and increase production” (Alstrom). This technique of half-binding, whereby the book was not thoroughly covered with leather, is indicative of a more economical form of binding; paper was less expensive than leather was (Alstrom). Even so, the minimal use of leather indicates that these volumes were made to indicate a higher value than other edition bindings, which would have been bound and sold to booksellers for retail in a combination of vellum and paper boards (Gaskell 153), as “leather and calf [were] reserved for special orders” (Raven 72).

Turning to the decoration used on the covers and end papers of the volumes, these textured pages not only play an important part in completing the half-binding technique used for A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, but also exemplify another trend in binding at the time: paper marbling. The technique can be traced back to practices in Turkestan as early as the 13th century, but only became common practice in Great Britain in the 18th century, when it was first used for bookbinding purposes in 1731 (Wolfe 8). Even so, it wasn’t until the late 18th century, around the publication of the Cook and King volumes, that the technique was used prolifically in Britain, as the trade “[reaching] maturity in the mid-1770s” (Wolfe 63-64; Wolfe 73). It was an uncommon practice in retail work until the half-binding technique came about; this was shortly followed by the marbling of end papers as well (Gaskell 152).

Though there are varied techniques to marbling, the binders of tinside-cover-fullhese particular volumes seemed to have favoured the Turkish style of marbling both for the cover and for the end papers. This style of marbling, the oldest of all Western marbling techniques, was favoured as early as the 15th century, and was the dominant marbling style used by English marblers in the late 18th century (University of Washington; Wolfe 184). The process itself is performed by letting ink float on water, manipulating the ink into a variety of patterns, and then transferring the ink onto paper by laying the paper down into the surface of the water; the paper would have been treated with alum to ensure the ink fixes to the paper, and then dried by suspending the pages over cords (Wolfe 138).

inside-coverThe marbling used on the Cook and King volumes, also known as spot patterns, depict common colour traits of the era as well, whereby green was the predominant colour in the pattern (Wolfe Plate XXVIII). Beyond the murky green, yellow, red and black were also common colours used in marbling at the time. As explained by Wolfe, these colours would have been thrown down first, followed by the dominant green shade. Finally, pink and white would have been added to the mix, which tended to grey or dull once added amongst the other colours (Wolfe 184). This development of marbling technique and colour selection, alongside the unique modifications that British marblers attempted with variations on combing and spotting throughout the late 18th and early 19th century, ensured that English marblers stood amongst the greatest masters in the world (Wolfe 184).

spineFinally, the trio also present a formidable example of gold stamping on their spines, in particular the stamping trends set by binder Roger Payne earlier in the century. As explained by Horne, “the great merit of Roger Payne… lay in his taste, in his choice of ornaments; and, especially, in the working of them. These, in many instances, were chosen in allusion to the subject of the work, or to the age and time of the author” (209). When considering this, there is a typical example of this type of ornamentation along the spine of the Cook volumes: the three decorative, gold-stamped ships, which reference the type of voyage Cook was commandeering and describing within the texts.

This decoration, alongside the titling on the spine, would have been applied by pressing hot stamps onto the leather with a metal press. Known as a blind impression, the stamps would first have been pressed into the leather, and the ensuing impressions would have been brushed with an egg white adhesive. Then, gold leaf would have been laid over the impressions and pressed into the grooves with further use of the stamping tools; excess gold would have been rubbed off upon finalization of the stamping (Gaskell 149).

Too Many Cooks: The Reception of A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean in England

Logistically, it’s easier for the public to get excited about a finished work than what inspired it. In his book The Death of Captain Cook, Glyn Williams reports that Cook leaving on his final voyage was unimpressive to the England of his time, and that newspapers made little of his voyage. It was not the first time Cook had set out, and he left as a celebrity whose star was being obscured by the setting sun of the British Empire. The American colonies were clearly about to revolt, and India was looking to follow. The communication technologies of the time were as fast as a messenger could travel across land, and so after a lackluster departure, the voyage traveled away from public memory, and into the horizon.

The voyage returned, perhaps missing a few crew members. After the return, Cook’s journals and drawings were handed over to the Crown, with the intent of creating an authorized account, however this account took four years to publish. In the intervening years, despite being discouraged, multiple spin-off accounts of the voyage were published by crew members, including John Rickman (first), William Ellis, and William Bligh (whose account was unable to be released until his death for career reasons) (Williams, The Death of Captain Cook, 28). These spin offs lead to the first published accounts from the voyage in periodicals, which were received in London critically. Once the official account was released by the crown, finished by King and edited by the notable Dr John Douglas, it was a very successful product that sold out within three days (Williams, The Death of Captain Cook, 87). The Crown carefully vetted this information; for example, Kennedy notices that Lieutenant Williamson’s dereliction of duty during the final hours of Cook’s life is covered up, among other large alterations to the originally recorded narrative.

The Crown went to lengths to discredit the unofficial accounts. The journals of the other crew members were handed over immediately after landing (Kennedy 92). The delay in publication cast pre-official accounts as “pirate accounts”. Despite great demand for information regarding the voyage, anything that didn’t support the Crown could be discredited. According to the statement in The London Magazine from when the voyage first returned, the “his majesty has a book of drawings, and Capt. Cook’s journal to the time of his death.” (Monthly Chronologer). This quote worked as an advertisement for an upcoming publication, as well as a publicity statement for the superiority of anything the Crown put out.          

Williams finds the long term effects of this book to be productive to colonial drives manifesting in Imperial England after publication. During the mid 1780’s we see an increase in British merchants who had read the account going to trade with Nootka tribes in Alaska for animal pelts. Further voyages of exploration launched just to learn more about the circumstances of cook’s death. We see Cook begin to appear as a colonial hero after the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (Williams, The Death of Captain Cook, 18); Cook became through his literary reception a model for the European explorer who interacts with “uncivilized”, dangerous natives, at his own risk. This is at odds with the man his journal entries portray (Kennedy 75). There being multiple versions of the travel log, the reception of which one and which order a reader might have received, it seems possible to have a different idea of Cook depending on what they had access to. Between the various unauthorized accounts released “as early as 1781” (Kennedy 91)(as well as their corresponding syndications in periodicals), it is easy to become confused on key aspects of Cook’s personality and attitudes especially towards indigenous peoples he interacted with. The accounts published in periodicals tended to come from the unofficial accounts, as there was a sizable delay and demand for the official account (Williams, The Death of Captain Cook, 27). Periodicals were the main source of advertising at the time (Feather 48), providing more success in selling copies later to accounts that were interesting or contained versions of Cook the public liked better.


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